This Is Spinal Tap opens with Marty DiBergi pacing across a soundstage, introducing his documentary and the band that his documentary is about. He is convincing in his delivery, casual in his approach. He even mentions the little pub where he first discovered the band, and tells us not to go looking for it because it’s not there anymore. Of course, Marty DiBergi is actually Spinal Tap’s director, Rob Reiner, but if you’re not familiar with Reiner, you could easily fall into the trap of thinking that this is a real documentary.
Apart from its witty comedy, this is where Spinal Tap is most successful. Reiner is able to pull out every code and convention of the documentary genre and exploit them in such a way as to twist their very meaning, not exactly to trick people into believing the film’s credibility, but to create a false truth. He has interviews, archival footage, and observational footage, but where he ups his game is in how he — along with his co-writers, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean — weaves wit and hilarity around these techniques to eliminate the possibility of truth. The movie becomes so funny and sometimes so ridiculous that it can’t conceivably be fact.
And yet there are people who’ve believed it.
Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean play Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls, and David St. Hubbins respectively, leading members of the English heavy rock band, Spinal Tap (their drummer keeps changing due to numerous unfortunate gruesome accidents, like choking on someone else’s vomit). They’ve reached moderate success in the past and are now looking to make a comeback with their latest album, “Smell The Glove”. This Is Spinal Tap chronicles their tour.
To review this movie is to not focus on what its story is, or how exactly its story is told, but on how its writers have so convincingly crafted a group of individuals who perform together to create a whole. The characters are so deep and so ingrained with a history and a camaraderie that we believe everything they say. David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel grew up together, and have been writing mediocre songs since they were five or six. The relationship they have now borders on the homoerotic, but Reiner never lets us believe it. Instead, the two are like best buds, with the occasional lustful stare.
This subtext never becomes more prominent than when David’s girlfriend, Jeanine, enters the picture and, in true Yoko Ono style, threatens to split the pair apart.
Derek Smalls is the band’s bassist, and like most bassists, he thrives on not being in the spotlight. He’s the mediator, the one who makes the inappropriate jokes, and ends up getting a bulk of the laughs. Just watch him try to exit his cocoon for one of the band’s acts. There are intricacies in the way Shearer expresses his embarrassment and confusion, and he never lets go of his professionalism. It’s a hilarious scene, worked to perfect timing not just by Shearer, but by Guest and McKean too, as they struggle to keep the song going while they give worried glances back at the trapped Derek.
The movie is saturated with such moments, and the laughter comes both from gags as well as clever dialogue. An example of the former would be the song “Stonehenge”. Just a couple of scenes before the band performs it, they are at a diner arguing about what the stage prop is going to be. They settle on a large model of Stonehenge descending from above, but instead of indicating its height to be eighteen feet, Nigel accidentally writes eighteen inches. There is a wonderful scene that follows where band manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), thinks the eighteen inch model that the manufacturer has brought is just a model, not knowing that it’s actually the real thing. What follows is history.
An example of the latter would be Nigel’s now famous conversation with DiBergi about the volume knobs on his amplifiers. No props, no gags, no crazy stage antics. Just dialogue; words that build up and overlap each other to form great comedy, and both Reiner and Guest bounce off each other like rubber balls.
And to top everything off, the film’s soundtrack is written by the band. Guest, McKean, and Shearer are actors, yes, but here they display their songwriting prowess and their ability to sell heavy rock songs to an audience that knows heavy rock songs. McKean’s singing voice is impressive, and when a fictional band has produced studio albums, something has to be going right somewhere.
This Is Spinal Tap is a great movie because it is smart and genuinely funny (look out for Nigel’s Mozart-esque piano ballad, subtly titled “Lick My Love Pump”). It takes the lives of the average rock band and satirizes them. In one of the DVD extras, different real life bands come together to discuss the film, and the general consensus ends up being that they all could see parts of themselves in Spinal Tap. Reiner manipulates these qualities of a band and meshes them with the know-it-all style of a documentary to produce a movie that works on multiple levels.
If you laugh at it, you’re enjoying great entertainment. If you don’t, you’ve probably fallen into the trap.